Forages: Underappreciated and undervalued

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Ask any person that raises beef cattle to provide a description of what they do, you will likely hear terms such as "cattleman", "rancher", "cow-calf producer", or "stocker" just to name a few. These terms are logical because if you are involved in beef cattle production, you are typically proud of what you do and enthusiastic about the industry. However, I believe these terms are a bit misleading. A person involved in cow-calf production or raising or backgrounding feeder calves is at some level a forage producer.

Don't get me wrong. I'm with most of the folks who consider themselves a cattleman first and foremost. Now more than ever, however, any successful cattle producer has to be equally adept at being a successful forage producer as well. Current economic conditions in today's beef industry indicate the need for an expanding herd and keeping a watchful eye on annual maintenance costs. Improved efficiencies in forage production are the keys to success in these areas.

It is my opinion that the typical forage production unit in Ohio does not compete in productivity and efficiency when compared to other agricultural commodities. Data from the Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service provides the proof. In 2011, the average hay (all types) yield was 2.48 tons/acre. Alfalfa yields that same year were 3.4 tons/acre. Compare yields that year for corn at 158 bushels/acre and corn silage at 18 tons/acre. A similar story was seen in 2010. The yields that year were 2.59 tons/acre for all hay, 3.3 tons/acre for alfalfa hay, 163 bushels/acre for corn, and 17 tons/acre for silage.

The argument could be made that I am comparing apples to oranges in this case. Much of our forage (hay and pasture) is produced in areas of the state that are not as conducive to grain production. These areas also do not have the soil types available to produce as competitive of yields as seen in other areas. However, the yield data indicates that we simply are not getting enough forage production off of the acres that are being utilized to remain viable in the beef industry in the current economic climate.

Let's set aside the topography and soil quality issues when we talk about forage production. Do forage producers utilize the management and production tools available to them as effectively as grain producers? On average, the answer is no. How many operations can you think of where forage production is treated as the highest priority enterprise? Are the best forage varieties available planted? Are optimal planting dates observed? Are soil samples regularly taken and fields fertilized accordingly? Are yield and quality-reducing weeds controlled? Are fields grazed or harvested to achieve a balance between yield and quality? Are alternative forages utilized to supplement traditional forage production? Do we store and feed hay in a manner to reduce losses?

It is my opinion that it would be a mistake to believe that the days of cheap corn or hay will be returning anytime soon. If a beef producer wants to increase the size of their operation or reduce feed costs, they must significantly improve the efficiency of their forage production enterprise. Increasing hay yields and/or improving grazing management will allow you to increase cattle numbers without buying or renting more land. Improving forage yields and quality can go a long way towards helping to reduce total feed costs in an operation.

Source: John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator



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